Microsoft makes right moves with Kinect

Washington Post consumer technology columnist Rob Pegoraro demos Microsoft's "vaguely magical" Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360.
By Mike Musgrove
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 7:41 PM

"Games are going to be one-hundred percent more awesome from now on," said the 9-year-old game industry analyst who lives at my house as we checked out Kinect, a new Microsoft device that allows you to interact with a game's virtual world by waving your arms and moving your body.

Some Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners will burn a few more calories than usual this season as they try out some of the latest video games. Microsoft and Sony are trying to expand the appeal of their game systems with the introduction of add-on devices designed to change how gamers play.

Nintendo paved the way in this area years ago by showing that consumers would respond to a game device that gave them a more intuitive and physical way to connect with a game's world. The Wii famously made games more immersive by letting players wave their arms to control, say, a tennis racket held by a character on a virtual court.

Now, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 are getting in on the act with their own new technologies, designed to appeal to those who aren't interested in learning how to mash lots of buttons on a game controller.

Sony's Move technology uses a camera to detect the motion of a new type of controller in a player's hands. Shaped like a baton and featuring a small glowing ball at the top, hold a pair of these in your hands and the system can replicate your movements inside a game environment as you swing a sword or a paddle.

Microsoft's Kinect technology takes the concept a step or two further: There are no controls to hold. The system's camera watches your movements as the game is running and responds accordingly. Kinect is so advanced that it can recognize your face and log you onto your account when you fire up the system. With a few tricks like that - did I mention that Kinect responds to voice commands? - Microsoft easily wins in the gee-whiz department.

But, you ask, what about the games?

For the initial batch of titles, at least, the clear winner is, again, Microsoft. Kinect technology is capable of tracking movement from a player's head to his toes and the resulting games are so far that much more immersive.

"I actually feel like I'm in the game," exclaimed my stepson as he jumped around in circles playing Kinectimals. In this title, you pick a virtual jungle pet, such as a tiger cub, then feed it and teach it tricks.

I popped in a Kinect-using music game, "Dance Central," with a certain amount of self-conscious dread. Here's the concept: You perform dance moves to famous tunes and earn points. If you're willing to make a fool of yourself in front of your friends, this thing is a blast.

Kinect's camera is precise enough that you can't get away with faking movements, and that sort of precision is critical to making these games fun. That is to say, if you're going to earn points by making a disco move to the song "Funkytown," you have to, ahem, fully commit to making that disco move. I'd bet that this one is going to be a hit among Kinect owners this year and beyond.

Overall, the Xbox titles we tried felt a little more polished and had more personality packed in. Some of Sony's Move titles, by contrast, felt more like they were more "proof of concept" than finished product.

I was disappointed in a boxing game for the Sony system called "The Fight: Lights Out," for example. As a workout, the title is a success; my arm and shoulder muscles were definitely sore the next day. But as a game, I was disappointed that my character's arms rarely seemed to connect well with my opponent. The shots landed lightly or flew wide, regardless of how I moved or how many times I tried to calibrate the Move system for better results.

The most fun I had with the Sony Move controllers was a slightly silly shoot-'em-up game, "The Shoot." In this game, you point the Move controller at your TV set and blast away at a bunch of silly monsters on a Hollywood film set. Great game. Great fun. But innovative? Hardly.

Sony is offering Move in a starter bundle priced at $100. That includes the camera, the controller and a title called Sports Champions. Microsoft is offering Kinect, which comes with a game called Kinect Adventures, for $150.

Just to be clear, holiday shoppers, both of these nifty add-on packages require that you (or your giftee) already own an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3. Also keep in mind that not every game on the shelf at the game store will take advantage of Kinect or Move; unless a game's packaging says that it was designed to work with Move for the PS3, or Kinect for Xbox 360, it won't.

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